Tag: social media (page 1 of 2)

Social Media and Protests

[Note: A more detailed version of this post appeared at my personal blog.]

The Cairo protests that ultimately led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak received a great deal of attention on Twitter—the most used hashtag in 2011 was #egypt—leadingYellow rubber duck much discussion over whether we were seeing  “a Twitter revolution.” But the mere fact that protests occurred at the same time as an increase in calls for regime change on social media does not establish that the latter in any way fueled the former. The same factors that lead people to take to the streets might drive behavior online. Absent a credible identification mechanism, there’s no way to settle this matter empirically. But one question we might reasonably ask is whether we can at least identify a clear mechanism by which they might do so.

At this point, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Um, yeah. Obviously.” Because you’re probably thinking that social media can help people learn that they’re not alone. That Twitter can help break the fear wall. But there are problems with that argument, as Andrew Little discusses in a fascinating new paper, “Communication Technology and Protest.”

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You Think You Have a Facebook Problem? The IDF and Social Media

Dan Levine sent on this great write up of the Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF) problems with social media.  A few highlights:

“In 2010, a soldier in the artillery corps posted this status: “Cleaning up Katana and home on Thursday.” Katana is a village in the West Bank. The status revealed the time of the planned raid and the unit involved. The other soldiers in the unit, also apparently glued to their screens, saw the update and, feeling imperiled, let the authorities know.” cute duck

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Some Personal Reflections on Social Media and Tenure

Editor’s note: this post first appeared on my personal blog.

As some of you may know, I’m up for tenure this year, and it’s not going to work out. I don’t want to get into the details of anything that ought not be discussed in public, but I thought I’d share some quick thoughts that some of you might find to be of interest.

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Social Media Before Conference Networking

This is a guest post by Brent Sasley. Sasley is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington. He blogs at Mideast Matrix and Open Zion. Follow him on Twitter.

The political science/IR blogosphere has been engaged in an interesting discussion in recent days: whether and how junior scholars should network at academic conferences (just follow the links from this piece to get them all or scroll down through Duck of Minerva’s main page).

My own two cents is that it depends on the conference, on the specific sub-field, and on the individual academic. Some conferences—like APSA and ISA—are so big that giants in the field are always going to know they’re in demand, especially if they’ve been established for awhile. They will choose according to their own criteria whether and how to respond to people clamoring for their interest, and that doesn’t bode well for most of us.

Some sub-fields, though, are small enough that you can contact the big names and you’ll likely get a positive response and—even more importantly—genuine interest in meeting. The same goes for smaller conferences: The Association for Israel Studies is really small compared to APSA and ISA, and there is a much more intimate feel to its annual conventions. You can pretty much go up to anybody there and expect some engagement—although like at the bigger ones, you can (I know from experience) still get scholars who treat you like you’re a first-year undergrad excited simply to be in the same room as them, regardless of your own standing. Ego isn’t field-specific.

And, of course, some people are simply better at networking in person than others. Some people are more outgoing, charismatic, and insistent. Others, not so much. Continue reading

Plagiarism 2.0

The internet has exploded this afternoon with the revelation that Fareed Zakaria (a Harvard Government PhD 1993) apparently plagiarized significant elements of his Time magazine op-ed this week. As many in the media have noted, including Politico, several paragraphs in his piece about gun control are “remarkably similar” to paragraphs originally published by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker on April 22, 2012. Zakaria almost immediately owned up to the deed:

“Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column this week bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore’s essay in the April 22nd issue of The New Yorker. They are right,” Zakaria said in a statement to The Atlantic Wire. “I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time, and to my readers.”

As a result, Zakaria has been suspended by Time for one month, pending further review. CNN has also suspended Zakaria from his Sunday television program.

On Twitter, a number of people have speculated that a careless intern, research assistant, or even a ghostwriter might be the guilty party at the root of the plagiarism. For example, journalist Chantal McLaughlin just tweeted:

The buck stops with Fareed Zakaria yet I can’t help but think that an #intern may be involved #DontOutsource

Earlier, neocon writer John Podhoretz tweeted,

“The irony: Fareed could never admit that he had an intern write the column….worse than plagiarism perhaps…”

The potential carelessness of a third party does not make Zakaria less responsible for the words published in his name, but it certainly adds an interesting twist to the incident. Indeed, the entire affair has reminded me about an odd exchange during an interview I watched on “The Daily Show” back on July 23. Host Jon Stewart asked Zakaria if he wrote the latest edition of his own book. Check out this video at about the 1 minute mark:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Fareed Zakaria
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

A Failure to Communicate?

Political science, alas, has been facing much hostility as of late.  Selected out by a Republican for de-funding, attacked by one of our own in a highly publicized and reputed piece, it is time that we wielded our tools to figure out what is going on.  Thankfully, Huber, Dowling and Hill have done some social science: surveys with some random selection to assess how people feel about Political Science compared to Psychology and Computer Science.  They find that people in general support NSF funding for political science less than for the other two with independents and Republicans far more negative to political science (although Republicans are not that fond of NSF funding of any of these dark arts) and psychology is only slightly preferred.

The scholars asked a batch of questions with these findings about what kinds of stuff people will support, broken down by party id:

Support for Different Purposes of NSF Funding
Overall      Democrats     Independents     Republicans    
To develop new technologies, products, and therapies 0.70 0.82 0.74 0.60
To improve basic understanding in the natural sciences 0.68 0.77 0.73 0.56
To train students  0.67 0.76 0.71 0.55
To improve basic understanding of human behavior 0.64 0.77 0.66 0.52
To support faculty and student research 0.63 0.73 0.67 0.52
Note: Cell entries are mean scale scores (weighted), where 1=Strongly support, .75=Somewhat support, .5=Neither support nor oppose, .25=Somewhat oppoes, 0=Strongly oppose

What we see here is an 7-8% preference for new technologies over faculty/student research or improve understanding of human behavior.  The authors conclude:

In the abstract, however, Independents are more supportive of understanding human behavior than they are of Political Science funding in particular, suggesting political scientists would do well to highlight their contributions in that area. Likewise, training students and supporting faculty and student research are reasonably popular among Independents. Perhaps the more general point is that it is hard to know what the mass public thinks Political Science funding supports, nor what elements of that work it finds objectionable. These results suggest, however, that the public, even Republicans, are more supportive of NSF funding of academic research than opposed, especially when evaluating the abstract goals that the NSF pursues. More effort highlighting these contributions, perhaps related to new technologies and the training of students, might be a fruitful way to foster support for continuing NSF funding for academic research in the social and behavioral sciences.

Interesting stuff.  I do think that political science is very much misunderstood, which may have something to do with this.  That is, we study politics, and politics is seen as dirty and unpopular.  In my experience, when I tell someone I study politics, their responses are usually focused on my ambition to be a politician or my interest in being a lawyer.  Given how much disrepute those two professions are in, it should not be surprising that we are not held in the highest esteem.

To be clear, I think our discipline has been targeted by Republicans of late because of two basic realities–we are low-hanging fruit, and we end up presenting inconvenient truths.  First, because of the existing PR problem that people don’t know what we do, we are easy to attack.  A politician hostile to any government funding of research finds it easiest to attack political scientists because we do not provide patents and other obvious markers of benefits to humankind.  I would not be surprised if Flake and others did some polling before they proposed attacking NSF funding of political science–that it plays better than cutting cancer research, for instance.  Second, we ask some damned inconvenient questions like: do politicians actually represent their constituents? what is the impact of foreign aid on repression? Why do people have political opinions that are counter to their interests?

Aside from making fun of lawyers, what can we do?  In the short run, not a whole hell of a lot.  Everything we have borrowed/stolen from the cognitive and social psychologists tells us that it is awfully hard to persuade people to change their minds.  In the long run?  Well, we are all dead, or so the economists tell us.  In the medium run, we can perhaps do a better job of connecting our research to the problems in the world.  The whole academia/policy gap that we make much noise about–the more we bridge that gap and bridge it visibly, perhaps our added value can be more apparent.

The good news is that we seem to be doing far more outreach now than in the past.  More and more political scientists are blogging, tweeting, and podcasting.  This is all to the good, as the more and more people see what we think, get snippets of research in more digestible forms, and hear our arguments, they can see that we are not aspiring politicians or lawyers but scholars seeking to understand the political world.  That politics is the making of decisions big and small that affect how communities are run (why Montreal’s roads are akin to World War I battlefields), that determine that the response to the current economic crisis should be austerity, that shape interventions into Syria and other conflicts or not.

My realization tonight is that my blogging and my media appearances are not just for my own narcissism but are for the good of the profession (as long as I am not too mistaken).  The more the public sees political scientists providing some insight, some perspective, the more we can change the perception of what we are and why our work is worthy of some public support if governments are going to be in the business of supporting research.

Of course, we disagree with each other as much or more than economists disagree with each other.  That noise sometimes makes it hard to appreciate what we bring to the table.  All we can do is convey our perspectives and hope that people see some value in our views.  They don’t have to agree.  They certainly will not much of the time.  But the more we step out of the ivory towers, the more we can influence how we are perceived.  Or at least, that is my wishful thinking for this night.

What else can we do to change how political science is viewed?

Gender, Violence and Digital Emergence

One of the most unsettling findings of our media and radicalisation research was the way in which the suffering of certain individual women is turned into a cause by radical Islamic groups that leads to violence by men in those women’s names. The availability of digital media, combined with a certain doctrinal entrepreneurialism by those using religion to justify political violence, has resulted in the widespread dissemination of amateur video clips depicting a specific woman’s plight and calling for reprisals. If you want to understand the link between online propaganda and offline action, it appears that representations of women’s bodies and their “honour” are often central. My project colleagues and I document two such cases in a research article published this week.

Dua Khalil Aswad, an Iraqi teenage girl of the Yazidi faith, was stoned to death on 7 April 2007 by a Yazidi mob consisting of tens of men, mostly her relatives, for eloping and spending the night with a Muslim man. Her death was recorded on a mobile cameraphone by a bystander and circulated on the internet. It was eventually picked up by NGOs and international media, where the killing was framed in terms of human rights abuses. However, the clip was also identified by so-called ‘mujahideen’ in Iraq, namely Al-Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated groups. They claimed Dua was killed because she converted to Islam. They argued her killing demonstrated how non-Islamic faiths violate human rights (they know how to call upon human rights discourse too), and that this warranted the mujahideen bringing their own kind of justice to Dua’s killers. Between April and September 2007 a series of high-profile retaliatory attacks saw the individual and collective killing of hundreds of Yazidis and the wounding and displacement of more. One of the jihadist groups involved in these attacks, Ansar Al-Sunna, posted a video justifying their violence. Dua’s death was woven into a longer strategic narrative perpetuated by jihadists concerning a war between Islam and other faiths.

Three years later, in 2010, we found considerable religious tension in Egypt and the Arab world stemming from several cases of young female Coptic Christians in Egypt who had allegedly converted to Islam and were forced by the Coptic Church, with the aid of the former Mubarak security forces, to return to Christianity. The alleged plight of these women became the subject of media debates, street demonstrations and protests by Muslims and counter-efforts by Copts in Egypt, inflammatory editorials, online speculation, and finally, violence against innocent people. One of the most prominent episodes occurred in July 2010. Camilia Shehata, a female Copt Christian in Egypt, disappeared, and allegedly converted to Islam. She then returned under the shelter of the Coptic Church and released various videos to explain her case. Her story was amplified by Christian and Muslim groups alike, but subsequent attacks in her name occurred in Iraq rather than Egypt. Al-Qaeda in Iraq took hostages in a Baghdad church in October 2010 and announced on YouTube:

Through the directions of the Ministry of War of the Islamic State of Iraq, and in defence of our weak and oppressed, imprisoned Muslim sisters in the Muslim land of Egypt, and after detailed choices and planning, a small group of jealous Mujahideen, beloved servants of Allah, launched an offensive against a filthy center of Shirk [the Church] which Christians in Iraq have for so long taken as a place from which to wage their war and plot against Islam. By Allah’s Grace, we were able to capture those who had gathered there and take control over all entrances.

The Mujahideen of the Islamic State of Iraq give the Christian Church of Egypt 48 hours to clarify the condition of our Muslim sisters imprisoned in the churches of Egypt, and to free them all without exception, and that they announce this through the media which must reach the Mujahideen within the given time period.

The Iraqi government chose to attack the hostage-takers rather than negotiate. The hostage-takers detonated their suicide bombs in the church and 53 people died.

These events confirm one thing we know: terrorist groups can derive asymmetrical benefit from digital media, since content from individual lives and incidents can be rapidly reframed to bolster longstanding narratives such as the notion of a clash between Islam and other religions. But what struck us as particularly significant was the degree of contingency involved. The line from the initial acts to the eventual victims and the way in which events are incorporated into others’ narratives seems chaotic, escaping the control of the initial actors. The economy of exchange through media is irregular: digital footage may emerge today, in a year or never, and it may emerge anywhere to anyone. The concept of agency becomes complicated. The span of things done ‘by’ Al-Qaeda is beyond its control. Is distributed agency something new, only made possible by digital connectivity, or have social and religious movements always depended upon – and hoped for – a degree of contingent taking-up of their cause?

While we cannot know why the Yazidi man with a digital camera recorded the stoning of Dua (or why he recorded others recording it with their cameras), the increasing recording of everyday life certainly produces more material for political and religious exploitation. As we have seen, this allowed Al-Qaeda to instantly reframe a woman’s life as a “sister’s” life to shame men into action. If the killing of Neda Soltan during the Iranian election protests in 2009 represented one face of today’s mix of gender, violence and digital emergence, the cases of Dua and Camilla show another.

Cross-posted from the journal Global Policy

Social Media and International Law

I have an essay online this morning at Opinio Juris as part of a symposium they are running this week on social media and international law:

One of the most curious aspects of the Kony2012 campaign is its backing by an important and powerful public servant, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. In publicly endorsing the campaign, Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, has espoused a powerful causal hypothesis: that social media campaigns are an indispensable new tool for the promotion of international justice. In the original Kony2012 video Moreno-Ocampo states: “We’re living in a new world, a Facebook world, in which 750 million people share ideas, not thinking in borders.” In the follow-up video, Beyond Famous, Moreno-Ocampo repeats the message: “We are changing the world, guys. This is completely new.”

Moreno-Ocampo’s enthusiasm for the campaign and for Invisible Children can be understood partly in terms of public relations for his own institution, and for the synonymity of IC’s narrative with the one underlying his own indictment of Joseph Kony for crimes against humanity. But his claims that campaigns like this will decisively shift public attention (and therefore policy attention toward international law and justice and the global institutions that promote them) deserve critical inquiry.

And we need to break this down a bit. Does social media impact citizens’ appreciation of and understanding of international law as Moreno-Ocampo implies? These are two separate questions and two separate processes. Even if they both hold true, does this imply that policy-makers will listen? And if that’s true, then in a world where social media and international law are routinely utilized and invoked by actors on both sides of any political issue, can we assume the net gain for human security will be positive? I don’t know the answers, but it’s worth thinking the questions through a little more carefully.

Some questions I ask:

1) Does social media impact citizen engagement with global social issues?

2) Does “citizen engagement on social issues” (where we see it) necessarily equate to “citizen understanding”?

3) What is the relationship between citizen engagement and citizen understanding, and what engagement/information ratio is most helpful in generating political will for international law enforcement?

4) How much does citizen engagement matter anyway?

5) To the extent that social media empowers the public, and the public empowers policy-makers, can we assume this will result in the promotion of human security and international law?

6) What do we mean by “promoting international law” anyway?

7) In an era of social media that empowers advocacy claims both consistent with and at odds with the spirit of international law, what is the best advocacy formula for mobilizing support for the implementation of international law to protect human security?

Read my answers here or leave your own in comments on either thread.

The Future of Teaching?

Dan Drezner was kind enough to link to my YouTube ISA Presentation. However Foreign Policy has headlined it “Is This the Future of Teaching?” Given that a number of colleagues have written to me this morning along the lines of “if that’s the future of teaching, I might as well give up, it looks too hard,” and “how long did that take you, anyway?!!” I feel compelled to provide some caveats.

1) If the medium is the message here, it’s a message about conference presentations, not in-class lectures. And while I will continue to use video mash-ups at conferences in the future, they’re not always going to be this detailed and probably never again going to be this long. My goal in the future is to limit them to 3-5 minutes. This will not only make them more manageable and concise, but will also leave more time for discussion on panels. I’d love it if more people adopted this approach, but it’s certainly not the only one. At this past ISA, I’ve participated on panels that included Powerpoint and video, that included only Powerpoint, that included only video, and that had no visuals. This model provides additional tools for presenting, but they’re not the only ones. My point re. conference presentations is that we can leverage social media not only to present in interesting ways but also to disseminate our academic work more widely – and that this is changing how the academy works and who it reaches.

2) If you do want to emulate this kind of presentation style, it’s not as hard as it looks, and it gets easier with practice. I created very little original content for this video – simply grabbed bits of existing YouTube videos and pasted them together, then threw on a soundtrack (which you could also easily skip – some commenters on the video have said the music is distracting) and carefully cited the sources. The mashing-up itself is pretty easy once you get used to it. I use a software package called Camtasia, which allows you to grab video snippets as easily as you might take a screenshot. [One qualification: identifying and capturing illustrative tweets is time-consuming and probably not worth the effort. Capturing, pasting them into a Powerpoint slide then taking a short video of the slide: easy enough. Finding the right ones is hard as Twitter does not make it easy to search for them.] But the bulk of the time creating this presentation was formulating my ideas in written form, and finding appropriate visuals to go with, but truth be told that’s the most time-consuming part of any conference presentation.

3) Regarding the classroom, I don’t teach in this style, and probably wouldn’t.
It’s true that short video mash-ups can make good teaching tools (especially if you can’t be present but you want students to absorb the material anyway). But the amount of prep-time to do presentations like this well on a day by day basis would be prohibitive and unnecessary, even counter-productive. Classrooms work best when profs throw out provocative material and allow students to react, then facilitate discussion. I’d be likelier to pick a clip from Kony2012, play it and discuss – or require students to create and present their own 60-second parodies – then to create my own mash-up. My point with regards to teaching is not that we should be doing videos like this in this classroom (a video in a classroom is not new media, that’s old media). It’s that we should be thinking about how to leverage new media to make classrooms more dynamic learning spaces. I’m not entirely convinced that having a live Twitter feed or Facebook on every laptop does contribute to this; I am convinced we should be thinking and researching and experimenting.

Finally, I am as intimidated as the rest of you about what this means for the future of teaching. One of the videos I borrowed from for my mashup is this mashup created by students in Anthony Rotolo‘s Information Studies class at Syracuse. Rotolo, who teaches social media and politics and also a popular class on Star Trek and the Information Age, specializes in integrating social media into the classroom and blogs about social media. His students’ mashup expresses visually without narration what is more carefully described in this short promotional documentary about Rotolo’s pedagogy.

I am gobsmacked by what he does and have no idea how I would make it work. At the same time I’m kind of intrigued and when I have a semester I can give over to experimenting, I probably will. My point in regards to teaching is not that mashups are the future. It’s that some of the flattening and broadening that I described in relation to our own professional networks are also relevant to our teaching. But what we make of that is up to each of us, and I’m far from certain how far I myself want to go with it, and how much I’m willing to invest. It’s a deeper conversation that I hope can begin on this comment thread.

Geeking Out on the Theory-Policy Divide

As I gathered content today for my upcoming ISA presentation on social media, I was delighted to discover that my “Blog Wars” video from few years back (a response to a theory-policy debate stirred up by Joseph Nye and Dan Drezner) is cited in an academic paper as an actual contribution to the debate!

The paper itself is quite good: Bradley Parks and Alena Stern conduct one of the few empirical studies I’m aware of how scholars actually interface with the world of policy. They use as a hook the debate over policy relevance sparked off by Joseph Nye’s “Scholars on the Sidelines?” op-ed back in 2009, Dan’s response and the following ripostes by Jim Vreeland and Raj Desai, and others. Unlike most of these scholars and prior literature on the subject, they test causal propositions rather than engage in prescriptive argument, with rather interesting findings. In particular, they show that leaving academia for policy work results in a likelihood of later publishing in policy journals, whereas mere consulting doesn’t apparently impact scholars’ likelihood of publishing outside the academy.

I have only one quibble with their argument, which is that they can’t really tell us whether “in-and-outers” publish in policy journals because they want to more than “moonlighters” or whether both groups attempt to do so but only “in-and-outers” have mastered the requisite skills. Or maybe both. The answer is relevant to thinking about how to restructure doctoral studies in the profession to both incentivize and train young political scientists for this type of technical writing, something I’m experimenting at present. In general, however, this is precisely the kind of work I’ve been telling my students we need to see in IR journals: empirical studies of the discipline itself and how it interfaces with the real world. Kudos to the authors.

Two additional things about this paper, and in particular the debate the authors use as a jumping off point:

1) the citations in this paper itself signal that user-generated media (blog conversations, blog comments, tweets and YouTube videos) are being genuinely interpreted as academic contributions these days, and that’s a fascinating shift that frankly I think has some bearing on the closing of the theory-policy divide since the use of social media by academics has broadened our audiences, changed our discourse and altered our communication styles. (I guess it’s good that MLA just came out with its guidelines on how to properly cite tweets: here. Not sure when they’ll have rules on YouTube videos, although to be fair the authors didn’t cite the video itself but rather the blog post where I disseminated it.)

2) the satirical and geeky nature of that debate as it played out in the blogosphere when it occurred strikes me as itself an interesting counter-point to David Newsom’s claim way back that

“IR scholars appear caught up in an elite culture in which labels, categories and even the humor have meaning ‘for members only’… they speak to each other rather than a wider public.”

I hypothesize that the increasing use of pop culture allegories and satirical arguments to make political points is an example of the exact opposite – the widening of academic and policy discourse to express debates through humor that appeals to a much broader audience.

However these are only hypotheses, since unlike Parks and Stern I’ve not constructed a research design to investigate whether they’re actually true. Whether they are (and whether or not that’s a good thing on balance) will have to be explored by future studies. But if you want to hear my rambling thoughts on the subject thus far, come to Henry Farrell’s roundtable on “Transnational Politics and the Information Age” Sunday April 1 at 1:45 at the International Studies Association Annual Conference. (Or, simply wait for the post-conference YouTube version, which you can obviously cite to your heart’s content.)

Invisible Children – Pretty Dang Visible

KONY, WE GON’ FIND YOU – as soon as I buy my bracelet!

Anyone who has been on Facebook and Twitter over the past 24 hours has probably seen impassioned pleas to watch a high-production video by Invisible Children, an American NGO (whose Board of Directors just happens to be entirely white American males). And anyone who is following many of the IR tweeters out there, you have also probably began to see the backlash.

For those of you who do not know what is going on, the video produced by Invisible Children discusses the conflict in Uganda with the Lord’s Resistance Army and in particular the crimes of the movement’s leader Joseph Kony – calling upon the world (particularly the United States) to act by signing a petition and, apparently, buying bracelets.

There is no doubt that Kony is – to put it mildly – a gigantic AAA asshole of the highest order, responsible for crimes that would make anyone’s stomach sick. And it is great that this video is spreading awareness of these crimes.

However, the solutions that Invisible Children (and other organisations, such as Human Rights Watch – now getting in on the #KONY2012 action) advocates are problematic. Others (see this article in Foreign Affairs) have pointed out that military humanitarian intervention in Uganda has been tried and tried again – always ultimately failing and managing to make matters a lot worse for civilians on the ground. Worse, in advocating for these policies, organisations such as Invisible Children, are giving a misleading and simplistic impression of what is actually happening on the ground:

In their campaigns, such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict.

 Mark Kersten at Justice in Conflict writes along similar lines:

It is hard to respect any documentary on northern Uganda where a five year-old white boy features more prominently than any northern Ugandan victim or survivor. Incredibly, with the exception of the adolescent northern Ugandan victim, Jacob, the voices of northern Ugandans go almost completely unheard.
It isn’t hard to imagine why the views of northern Ugandans wouldn’t be considered: they don’t fit with the narrative produced and reproduced in the insulated echo chamber that produced the ‘Kony 2012′ film.
‘Kony 2012′, quite dubiously, avoids stepping into the ‘peace-justice’ question in northern Uganda precisely because it is a world of contesting and plural views, eloquently expressed by the northern Ugandans themselves. Some reports suggest that the majority of Acholi people continue to support the amnesty process whereby LRA combatants – including senior officials – return to the country in exchange for amnesty and entering a process of ‘traditional justice’. Many continue to support the Ugandan Amnesty law because of the reality that it is their own children who constitute the LRA. Once again, this issue is barely touched upon in the film. Yet the LRA poses a stark dilemma to the people of northern Uganda: it is now composed primarily of child soldiers, most of whom were abducted and forced to join the rebel ranks and commit atrocities. Labeling them “victims” or “perpetrators” becomes particularly problematic as they are often both.
Furthermore, the crisis in northern Ugandan is not seen by its citizens as one that is the result of the LRA. Yes, you read that right. The conflict in the region is viewed as one wherein both the Government of Uganda and the LRA, as well as their regional supporters (primarily South Sudan and Khartoum, respectively) have perpetrated and benefited from nearly twenty-five years of systemic and structural violence and displacement. This pattern is what Chris Dolan has eloquently and persuasively termed ‘social torture‘ wherein both the Ugandan Government and the LRA’s treatment of the population has resulted in symptoms of collective torture and the blurring of the perpetrator-victim binary.

Beyond this, I find the entire nature of the campaign to be problematic. As this excellent post at King’s of War argues:

Will simplistic explanations of long-running wars, delivered in a Facebook-friendly manner become the future of foreign policy? If the opinion of Rihanna and George Clooney is going to dislodge ‘technocrats’ who do things like read the Military Balance, then what’s to stop intervention in Syria? Pretty much everyone with a passing interest in military affairs says “that is a very bad idea and lots of people will die” but I’m pretty sure that a bright person with access to youtube can come up with a better argument for a brighter world in which taking Assad down is an expression of democratic empowerment. The point about war and military affairs is that at some point, it requires restraint. That restraint is entirely arbitrary (and unfair) but it stops people getting killed. If Angelina Jolie in combination with Condoleeza Rice are to dictate American strategy, then restraints to force will disappear into a blur of “Let’s go get the bad guy” activism that is almost entirely ignorant of the second and third order effects of those decisions.

Last year I wrote a post that was critical of those who are concerned about the use of media which re-emphasizes the idea of “Africans as victims”. I argued that in times of famine, pictures of said famine are useful for generating much needed donations for use by reputable organisations who are combating famine in, say, the Horn of Africa. But this is something altogether different. Invisible Children has been accused of manipulating numbers in order to generate money for its cause. Worse, the vast majority of the money is not actually put towards victims of the conflict, but for advocating military intervention in Western countries. This is basically Save Darfur 2.0.

To put it simply, the situation on the ground in Uganda is complex. Military humanitarian intervention has serious consequences. Ham-fistedly intervening in a conflict of which few have a nuanced understanding of the conditions on the ground, where local actors are already engaged in trying to bring about a peaceful resolution, is not going to help and may in fact serve to make a difficult situation worse. Buying a bracelet from an American run NGO will not change this.

I am increasingly getting the feeling that if this is the future of international politics and humanitarian intervention, there are high-definition troubled waters ahead.

Other interesting  posts on Invisible Children from around the web:


How Matters


Unmuted 


Visible Children – a no doubt hastily constructed Tumblr, but one that effectively critiques the Invisible Children video.


Washington Post’s slightly less critical take of the issue that highlights the different sides of the debate.


Edit: The very darkly humoured Kony 2012 drinking game! (via Alana Tiemessen)

New Deal for BBC World Service Weakens Britain’s Soft Power?

Una Marson, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot and others at the World Service during WW2
The reputation of the BBC World Service around the world reflects that of Britain generally. It’s an institution tied to colonial history. It aspires to global reach. Through its journalism it tries to uphold values of impartiality and objectivity, and therein lies the attractive, soft power dimension. As an institution, however, it cannot escape appearing partial – it is funded by the British state, and that state wouldn’t continue to fund it unless it was serving Britain’s interests. Therein lies the appearance of hypocrisy that taints Britain’s soft power. But this week the British government announced a new funding mechanism, and yesterday Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC World Service, spoke about the changes to an audience in London.

The BBC World Service is currently funded by a direct grant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Britain’s State Department. While a Royal Charter prevents the FCO interfering in the editorial content of World Service programming, the FCO can decide which foreign language services are strengthened or cut. In the last decade, Arabic and other strategically important language services have tended to do quite well, others less so.  Last year the government announced the World Service would be funded through the annual licence fee people in Britain must pay in order to receive BBC content legally. The World Service will be just another part of the BBC per se, its tie to the FCO less obvious. This week the World Service was granted extra funding not least because of its performance through the Arab Spring and supportive comments from Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader.
The problem for the World Service now is that it is just another BBC service, funded by taxpayers. In the current economic malaise, taxpayers might feel extra hospitals are more important than Hindi radio. Horrocks suggested that the World Service is highly regarded by British citizens. But historically, the value of World Service programming is to those in conflict zones and diasporic publics who consumed its cultural output. People in Britain gets a more parochial, national BBC news and are probably unaware of the range and impact of World Service programming.
As the World Service becomes increasingly integrated into the general BBC – sharing technology, content, staff, and buildings – and as it has to justify itself to a home audience, so its distinctiveness would seem under threat. Horrocks seemed optimistic. For example, the fragmentation of media across devices, formats and languages and creation of innumerable niche micro-audiences is not a problem because the World Service has the tools and expertise to repackage the same news for all possible outlets.  While China, Russia and others may be investing huge resources on rival global broadcasting organisations, the World Service retains the credibility borne of its professional, impartial journalistic ethos (note that Al-Jazeera has been criticised for treating different Arab Spring uprisings in very different ways, prompting aprickly reaction). 
Horrocks finally turned to the question of soft power. He argued that the World Service does not aim to project soft power, but that paradoxically it does create soft power for Britain because the objectivity of World Service journalism becomes associated with Britain. A moment later, however, he said the World Service aims to project and change people’s perspectives, to “impart impartiality”. Imparting sounds very much like changing minds. Changing minds is an instrumental goal for the FCO, who want the world to “do business with Britain”. Does this make the World Service an unwitting instrument of the FCO? This ambivalence is exactly why the World Service is open to charges of hypocrisy.

Horrocks must be thanked for speaking openly and taking questions, and it is important that the World Service continues to engage in critical discussion about its role and purpose. I would be interested to know whether the chiefs of CCTV or Russia Today hold free flowing public debates.

Mindless Empiricism

"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" -- Mark Twain. 
If we don’t get to see a photo, how will we know with certainty that Osama bin Laden isn’t simply living in a retirement community with Hitler, Jim Morrison, Elvis, Andy Kaufman, Tupac, Princess Diana, and Michael Jackson? 
I hear that they mostly talk about the good old days, the JFK assassination, and the 2004 election results in Ohio.
Personally, I’ll be satisfied when I see the long-form death certificate. 
I know, I know — 140 char. versions of these should probably be on twitter, rather than here. Sorry. 


					
		

“Also, It Turns Out Mubarak is a Cylon.” #BSG #Egypt @RT “So Say We All!”

I was fascinated to learn while working on my Battlestar Galactica “research project” that Adama’s quote from the scene above was floating around the Internet for some time during the Egyptian Revolution. The statement “This quote now applicable to Egypt” appeared in a Reddit thread, was reposted on at least one Facebook site, quickly attracting 6,000 likes and over 1800 comments, while like-minded tweets exploded across cyberspace. This one was featured at the Huffington post:Here are some other fun examples.

The book editors for whom we’re developing this working paper asked us to look at the “intertext” between the series and political understandings in the actual world, so for our paper it was sufficient to acknowledge this phenomena.

But as a qualitative analyst I decided to take a closer, more systematic look at a sample of these comments and tweets. I was interested in the extent to which BSG metaphors engendered useful political commentary on civil-military relations – precisely what you would hope if Jutta Weldes is correct in arguing that “state action is made common-sensical through popular culture.”

I discovered something more nuanced: the answer to that question seems to depend greatly on which new media tool the data came from.

The pie charts you see below are the results of myself and a student assistant coding tweets and comments for these attributes, disaggregated by source. We analyzed comments from three sources: Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. The Reddit and Facebook comments were easy enough to capture with a little technical help – thanks Alex.

Tweets were trickier because Google doesn’t index them. Luckily my partner Stuart Shulman has invented a tool for capturing live Twitter feeds, and he happens to be sitting on a searchable archive of over a million tweets from #Cairo and #Egypt. We used his tool, DiscoverText, to search those tweets for the keywords “BSG” “Battlestar” “Galactica” and “Adama” and got back a small but interesting set of results to combine with the Reddit and Facebook comments.

DiscoverText also allows you to tag and sift through text data you gather, so last weekend we went through a total of 77 tweets, 383 Reddit comments and 966 unique Facebook comments. (The FB page says there are 1800 or so, but a lot of them are duplicates. Fortunately DiscoverText also contains a de-duping tool so we were able to eliminate those entirely.)

You can see a couple of things right away. First, you find less diversity among the tweets: they basically fall into just four code categories, whereas the range of commentary in the FB and Redidt threads is wider. But secondly, the tweets and FB comments share something in common: they are primarily composed of mindless validations of the original quote, whereas the Reddit thread contains many more original, substantive comments and even discussion.

In other words, as this bar chart makes a little clearer, the social media reaction to this quote was to retweets or write “so say we all” – similar to the practice of clicking on a form letter to a Congressperson rather than writing an original substantive remark about a political issue. However, on the Reddit thread, commenters were not only more likely to point out that it’s not clear how applicable the quote is to Egypt, but also more likely to use the quote as a jumping off point to broader discussions of Egypt, of civil-military relations, of the nuances of Adama’s messaging – in other words, far more of these were “original comments” generating discussion among commenters, rather than simple validations of the original poster’s argument. That’s pretty interesting, especially given recent claims that blogs and blog commenting are going the way of the dinosaur in favor of social media as a platform for deliberative discourse.

DiscoverText also makes it easy to drill down into specific categories of text. Of the truly original, deliberative comments (for example), you can see some interesting conversations develop. As noted, in contrast to the mindless re-tweeters, the more critical thinkers argued over the applicability of the quote to the situation in Egypt.

Not sure how this applies to Egypt since they have a separate military and police. Which, coincidentally, the military has sided with the people while the police remain loyal to Mubarak. Cool quote but nothing to do with Egypt

This quote doesn’t apply to Egypt in any way. The military forces in Egypt are mostly staffed by conscription, with mandatory service of 1-3 years for citizens (3 if you’re uneducated, 2 w/ high school degree, 1 with college degree).The protesters are cheering “We want the Army! We want the Army!” because, guess what, they are the Army.

I suggest you re-read what Adama is saying. If you think this is about “hailing the police” you are way off. Adama’s point is that there has to be a balance in the state separation of forces. That is the only thing saving the egyptians as the military appear to be unwilling to crack down on the protesters.

This led to two sets of wider conversations, one about Egypt:

The people distrust, resent and hate the police due to decades of corruption, violence and abuse of power. They have no such feelings about the military and largely regard them to be impartial, helpful and for the people. Unfortunately since Mubarak’s inflammatory speech it seems the military are actually still backing him and have also managed to position themselves very well amongst the crowds.

I think the top military commanders are being very cautious at this point just like all the Western governments because so much is up in the air. If they choose the losing side, they might pay with their lives. If the western governments choose the losing side, they might make an enemy of a very powerful player in their regional interests (Israel, Iran, etc.) and with control over the flow of oil (Suez Canal).

Better the devil we know in the current regime, a transition to full democracy will allow the popular fundamentalist Brotherhood terror group to take power. ‘I prefer to deal with the probable’ (Commander Helena Cain). This is not clear cut….. don’t be fooled like the 12 colonies.

… and one about civil-military relations.

It’s very poetic, but I think the real distinction isn’t so much about between fighting enemies and serving the people. Both in theory are actually doing that. The difference is more in the nature of the enemy: The military fights external enemies, the police, the internal enemies.

The purpose of the police has never been to serve or protect the people. They are and have always been a means by which the state can impose its will on the people. This is clear simply by reading the writings of the elites who control the state — they admit it freely. The modern myth that the police are somehow the noble champions of justice for the little man can be shattered by merely being black, or a woman, or transexual, or gay, or any other minority.

The military is expected to protect the physical borders, the police to protect agreed upon immaterial borders within the physical borders. When these rather orthogonal causes are mixed, then it’s likely you will hit a border whatever you do, then the state has become your enemy, despite both the military and the police are employed by you, the citizen.

Alternatively, some commenters discussed the origin of the quote itself, and some got off on tangents about the nature of Cylon resurrection, the value of BSG relative to Star Trek or Firefly, or how to quantify the exact nerd quotient on display in the comment thread. But the most interesting arguments to me (and perhaps to Iver Neumann and Nicholas Kiersey, who are running the BSG project) were the ones where people bickered over whether the notion of BSG as an “intertext” was valid at all: do science fiction shows as parables really help us understand real-world politics or do they merely distract?

Some quotes that received the code “It’s Just A Show”:

CLEARLY some of you losers desperately need to get a life…. or at the very least serious help from a mental health professional….. HE IS A FICTIONAL CHARACTER IN A TELEVISION SERIES NOTHING MORE..

What a load of absolute horseshit. Go and actually read about what is happening in Egypt instead of wasting your time with stuff like this.

Battlestar Galactica quotes are inappropriate for deadly-serious, real life sitatuations.

It’s must easier to accept platitudes and pop culture references than it is to think critically.

Some quotes that received the code “BSG <> World Politics”:

This is why the series was so great. It was one of the few sci-fi shows that truly reflected and touched on relevant ideas and issues of our day.

Almost every good scifi I’ve known takes real-world problems, and puts them into another light so you can look at them differently, and possibly see something entirely new. It can offer an incredible commentary on many aspects of society.

So Say We All :) … It doesn’t matter what genre or if this statement is from a real world instance- it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold truth! And to one of the above posters- if you cannot see Cmdr. Adama’s words (however fictious) is a perfect example of what is happening in the real world- then YOU need to get a life!

I’m not sure where readers come down in this debate, but I will say that in the paper we describe a variety of ways in which shows like BSG function to mediate real-world socio-political relations: drawing on, reflecting and structuring civil-military debates, serving as a social lubricant for human security discussions across the civil-military divide, and even problematizing certain sacred cows in human security discourse. [H/T to Jason Sigger for pointing me to this exchange and this one, for example.] As we ended up arguing in the article:

“These real-world conversations – whether about US military affairs, Middle Eastern revolutions, or just warrioring – are at times infused with Battlestar Galactica references, demonstrating the show’s relevance to deliberative discourse about the civil-military relationship…”

But just how deliberative may depend on the context.

Replication data for this study is available at the Dataverse Project. Comments on our working draft are very welcome.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

Organizing the Revolution

When I taught for three years at the American University in Cairo, my partner, who was conducting her doctoral dissertation research on Islamist political parties, would often get text messages from the Muslim Brotherhood informing us of interesting programs we might want to watch on satellite that evening or educational events around town. While I found the messages from the “banned-but-tolerated” party amusing (and useful), I was always dimly aware that the state must also be monitoring such messages. In one of my political economy classes I remember my students talking about one of their colleagues whom they suspected was being paid by the state to take notes in another lecture class. (When I asked whether they thought anyone was spying on my classes, my students all said IPE is just not that important to the regime). I think back to those stories whenever I hear people talking about the groundbreaking role of new media in organizing protests in authoritarian regimes.

While the January 25th revolution was partially organized through Facebook, activists are certainly not restricted to these new social media networks…. and make no doubt about it, this was a well organized revolution.  The Atlantic has translated pamphlets distributed to protesters on how to organize and behave.

What one notes in this pamphlet is the advice not to use Twitter or Facebook because they are monitored by the state. These pamphlets were distributed the “old” fashioned way: photocopies given out by hand.

This is not to say that new social networking sites are irrelevant. What I mainly noticed in the days leading up to the start of the protests was that many of my friends in Egypt who are on Facebook began openly posting anti-government status updates. It was surprising to me because many of them are elites or at least members of upper middle class.  In essence, one might hypothesize that the role of new social media networks is to help rally or tap into anti-government sentiment which is often not voiced loudly in public, but the actual organization and dissemination of strategy and tactics still occurs off-line.

Information Doesn’t Want to be Free, People Do.

Clay Shirky has the lead article in this month’s Foreign Affairs on social media and world politics. Although both governments and activists both seem to be assuming that the effects are a boon to civil society, Shirky begins by pointing out that the record of such effects on political mobilization is a mixed bag:

“The use of social media tools – text massaging, email, photo sharing, social networking and the like – does not have a single pre-ordained outcome… the safest characterization of recent quantitative attempts to answer the question ‘do digital tools enhance democracy?’ is that these tools probably do not hurt in the short run and might help in the long run – and that they have teh most dramatic effects in states where a public sphere already constraints the actions of government.”

Given this, Shirky argues that the clearest way in which social media empowers citizens is not through information dissemination per se but by providing them tools and platforms through which to coordinate and mobilize – privately – among themselves to buttress and enhance the public sphere so indispensable to democracy. He thus critiques “internet freedom” policies that focus primarily on preventing states from censoring outside websites and argues that the key is a thriving public sphere (which can be faciliated by social media among other things), not information freedom per se:

Although the story of Estrada’s ouster and other similar events have led observers to focus on the power of mass protests to topple governments, the potential of social media lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere – change measured in years and decades rather than weeks or months… The US government should maintain internet freedom as a goal to be pursued in a principled and regime-neutral gashion, not as a tool for effecting immediate policy aims country by country… internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.”

An interesting piece full of insight, but it also has a number of important blinders; I’ll mention two here.

First, it’s interesting to see Shirky’s article framed as a critique of the State Department’s internet freedom policy on instrumental grounds rather than in terms of the disconnect with evolving US practice. The US comes off here as a well-intentioned yet empirically misguided champion of civil society’s right to information on the basis of its official agenda. Recent events, however, situate the US less as a champion of internet freedom and more as a powerful government in search of tools for suppressing that freedom. Whether or not you believe (as I do not) that organizations like Wikileaks should have the unlimited right to access and publicize private documents, it is alarming to see a powerful government actively searching for ways to prosecute such behavior as illegitimate speech rather than seeking to regulate it.

[To be fair, Shirky has much to say about this on his own blog:

I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want.}

But second, let’s take the opposite tack. If Shirky’s argument about the coordinating power of civil society through social media is accurate, an important question about the extent to which “information freedom” policies help or hurt needs to be directed not just at policymakers in the State Department but also information freedom activists like Assange himself and the movement for which he remains a figurehead.

Shirky’s claim is that the real value of social media is in “allowing citizens to communicate privately among themselves;” in the off-cited “boomerang effect” this communication often crosses boundaries and involves dissidents within one country seeking alliances with civil society networks and sympathetic governments abroad. The public sphere, in other words, is increasingly internationalized. The strategy of capturing and leaking digital evidence of such communications, while intended to hold governments to account, predictably produces blow-back effects on dissidents as well by exposing their connections with those governments abroad. Belarus and Zimbabwe are two recent country contexts where this allegations of this dynamic are coming to light.

Similarly, as privacy controls on social networking sites and laws protecting the privacy of text messages are increasingly whittled away, will this not dampen precisely the public sphere that translates social media into political power? As plausible as Assange’s argument that transparency will hobble the ability of state bureaucracies to organize wrong-doing in secret is the threat that transparency will hobble citizens’ ability to organize dissent and protest against the state. If so, strengthening laws, norms and media architecture to protect the right to control who can view and disseminate one’s digital artifacts – be they governments, corporations or individuals – would perhaps be a more important step toward freedom than condemning information censorship. And this is an argument to be pitched not just at the US State Department but the wider elements in global civil society that want a rights-based internet architecture that works for people.

[On some key distinction between private control and institutional control over data, see John Lanier’s recent essay and Zynep Tufekci’s riposte.

And that brings me full circle to an important conceptual point. What I am describing is not information freedom. Is it the freedom of individuals to control how information about themselves and their socio-political activities are shared and with whom. And this – like the ability to peacefully assemble and organize – is a prerequisite to the achievement of other important rights.

A MarkZist Manifesto. Or Not.

Me: “Look, here’s ‘me and Rob Farley’.”

Stu: “Who’s Rob Farley?”

Me: “Dude. My co-blogger; also, he’s coming to dinner next Wednesday after his guest lecture on battleships in my human security class. That’s not the point. Look, look this is ‘our’ Facebook page.”

Stu: “You mean the Lawyers, Guns and Money page? I’ve visited it once or twice.”

Me: “Not the LGM page. See? Look.”

Stu: “Whoa. How did you do that?”

Me: “I didn’t do that; Facebook did it automatically.”

Stu: “How did you find out about it?”

Me: “Kid Number One told me. Her friends at high school are all over this.”

Stu: “I bet. Wow, this means you can easily research exactly what every pair of your friends has ever said to one another on Facebook? That’s pretty sweet.”

Me: “Sweet, yep. You can find out exactly how strong or weak your ties to your different friends are, relative to your other friends, much more easily now. And you can be sure that everyone else can see that too. I can imagine high-schoolers are going to have new ways to stigmatize each other now.”

Stu: “Oh, you’re always so down on Facebook. I happen to like Mr. Zuckerberg.”

Me: “I worry about cyber-bullying.”

Stu: “But come on, admit this is cool. I wonder what the algorithm is like they use to choose the profile picture they use for your page. Let’s see what we look like.”

Me: “OK, here you go…. Aww. Look at us. It’s Kid Number Two’s birthday party.”

Stu: “I look really bad in that picture. Oh look, it appears we attended the Rally for Sanity together.”

Me: “Looks like FB pledges were a pretty good indicator of the crowd size after all. Huh.”

Stu: “Hey, I want to see what ‘You and your buddy Alex’ look like. Don’t roll your eyes.”

Me: (typing) “That was a twitch, not a roll. Hmm. Now this is interesting. Alex must know some privacy settings I don’t.”

Stu: “Inconceivable.”

Me: (dryly) “I see his and my Lexulous games don’t appear here; that’s good since that’s where all the excitement actually goes on.”

Stu: “Ha, ha.”

Me: “You know, this is really invasive.”

Stu: “Why? Are you saying you have something to hide?”

Me: “No, but it shouldn’t matter. The depth and nature of my relationships with my online friends shouldn’t be easier to find now than they were when I was choosing to present them online.”

Stu: “What difference does that make?”

Me: “All the difference. Everything people put on a site like FB is a carefully chosen representation of who they are and how they are connected to others, and one’s judgment about those representations is based on who you think you’re presenting it to – your understanding of who can see it – and how they can see it. This new architecture changes that, not only going forward but apparently going back, yet had this architecture been in place previously people might have chosen to present themselves online differently, more strategically.”

Stu: “I don’t think most people are as ‘strategic’ as you IR theorists are. And I don’t see how that’s Facebook’s responsibility anyway. Mark Zuckerberg and his talented crew of developers have created a cool new idea that will make it easier, among other things, to study those FB relationships. Network scholars like you should be estatic; one less thing you need to build. Perhaps Facebook will give estimates of error and validity, unlike some folks I hear about.”

Me: “It’s true that now we have precise data on ties within FB as well as on nodes. Alex will like that.”

Stu: (feigning knowingly-ness) “I’m sure he will.”

Me: “Don’t deflect my argument with your sideways comments. The purpose of Facebook isn’t, or shouldn’t be, to provide an open book for social scientists about citizens’ online behavior. It’s to connect people, but it’s to allow them to control those connections.”

Stu: “I suppose you could say the purpose of politics is not to provide an open book for studying as well, but as political scientists that might get us in some trouble with APSA.”

Me: “Facebook isn’t politics. People on Facebook aren’t public figures, they’re private citizens.”

Stu: “Isn’t the personal political?”

Me: “I do not think that means what you think it means.”

Stu: “Anyway it’s not just citizens on Facebook now. It’s everything: it’s corporations, civic groups, politicians. Facebook is basically the new internet. You aren’t uncomfortable with the Internet being open, are you?”

Me: “It may be morphing into the new Internet, but that’s not the function it was built for and it’s not what individuals signed up for when they created their accounts. They signed up for exclusivity, for the ability to create walls around their communities of friends and choose who to let in. And here’s what gets me: Zuckerberg knew that exclusivity is what would make Facebook popular. Yet over time he’s trying to undermine that with all these little maneuvers. The news feed. The ‘we own your data’ announcement. Making profile pictures public. The ‘Everyone’ default setting. And now the ‘You and X’ tool.”

Stu: “But you know what else is interesting. People who didn’t like the news feed used the news feed to argue against it. People protesting Facebook policies benefit from those policies in forming their protest.”

Me: “Just because you’re exercising voice instead of exit doesn’t mean you have to be loyal.”

Stu: “Fine, but I also don’t buy the argument that there is a “purpose” (singular) for Facebook. It stopped being for one purpose (if it ever was) a long time ago and since its graduation to a platform, the idea of The Real Purpose is even more preposterous. Facebook is a wildly popular platform for thousands of purposes. I find it interesting and worthy of study precisely for this reason.”

Me: That’s because you’re a MarkZist.

Stu: (laughing) “It’s true! I am a MarkZist. I was trained to study Karl Marx by old school Marxists. Now I study the machinations of an online world envisioned by Mark Z. To me, being a MarkZist means embracing, honoring and yes studying the distributed means of content production defined by the Internet and perfected by Facebook.”

Me: “I mean more than that. I mean that Zuckerberg subscribes to an entire hacktivist information-freedom-fighting culture that values truth and transparency for its own sake. But it’s not enough for him to hold and promote that ideology by striking against the powers that be in any way he can, like Julian Assange; Zuckerberg’s means are more nefarious. He imposes his ideology on users, seductively, through the architecture of his tool itself. People who like this ideology and are happy to see it inflicted on others through the tyranny of architecture are MarkZists.”

Stu: “I always struggle with the word ‘inflict’ in this context. There is no requirement to have a Facebook page. I do like that Facebook embraces architecture as a means for social change. It is hard to know in the moment what effect their ‘ideology’ will have on us ten years from now. After all, you’re not a Marxist are you?”

Me: “No, apparently just a socialist.”

Stu: (continuing) “And I wouldn’t say he’s fighting for information to be freed as an end in itself. I would say he imagines that freedom of information sobers people’s behavior.”

Me: “Who wants sobriety? People want the freedom to be human, to have secrets and different masks for different social contexts. And they don’t want information to be free, except about others in power over them; they want the freedom to control information about themselves.”

Stu: “Then they shouldn’t be on the Internet.”

Me: “I see. Anyone who doesn’t get in line behind MarkZism should be excluded from the information economy and the modern age. Sounds like totalitarianism to me.”

Stu: “It’s not totalitarianism. It’s capitalism.”

Me: “This isn’t about profit for Zuckerberg. He’s got a social agenda that he promotes through his company.”

Stu: “So does the entire green business community.”

Me: “But Zuckerberg’s agenda isn’t to save the planet or promote the common good. It’s to undermine our liberties. He has come out and said that he believes the age of privacy is over, all our identities should be public and he is planning to teach us these new social norms through his tools. And I for one think there is something rather frightening about that agenda.”

Stu: “Not everyone is as hung up on that as you. And just because someone’s frightened of something doesn’t mean it’s bad. No one should be punished simply for openly subscribing to MarkZism.”

Me: “Don’t dismiss me as some fear-industrial-complex mouthpiece. Yu know who else is ‘hung up’ on this? Congress is. Henry Farrell is.

Stu: “Who’s Henry Farrell?”

Me: “A blogger who might be very concerned about the software you’re building to allow people to study Facebook and Twitter feeds.”

Stu: “Tell him 30 days free trial is normal, but for him, 45. (chuckling) Anyway, that’s a perfect example. Our software only captures public information on Facebook feeds, whatever users share with “Everyone” using the API Open Graph. It can’t see anything that’s actually private. Folks could change their settings, after all.”

Me: “Fine, but my whole argument is that Facebook has made it so difficult to maintain your privacy that most people don’t even realize how public their information is. And now not only can anyone in the world see it who’s looking for it, but people like you are incentivizing the looking by making it easy and interesting to capture, archive and study those social relations.”

Stu: “But people have the responsibility to inform themselves. I mean, it’s true that some people will say, are you building tools to spy on folks? Of course not, I say. People are using other tools and platforms like Facebook and Youtube to spy on themselves and we just make it a bit easier.”

Me: “Spoken like a true MarkZist.”

Stu: “If they don’t like it, they can leave Facebook.”

Me: “It’s not that easy to commit a Facebook Suicide. That’s like saying, ‘America: Love it or Leave it.'”

Stu: “Please. You’re honestly comparing relocation out of one’s country to the choice of whether or not to switch software applications?”

Me: “Absolutely. In fact, I think leaving one’s physical country is actually easier than leaving one’s online social network, because so much of our social activity now is based on the Internet rather than on face-to-face interactions within our country. Thanks to Facebook, you can emigrate without losing your social network whom you rarely see anyway, but you can’t kill your Facebook page and keep your friendships intact because they’re so embedded now in social media.”

Stu: “That’s a tough sell.”

Me: “Well, maybe if you read some of my blog posts, you would understand why you’re wrong about that.”

Stu: “It’s cute how shocked you are that I don’t read all your posts. Look, I’ll prove how specious this argument is. I’ll delete my FB account right now. It’s not hard.”

Me: “Go for it. Delete your account. It’s harder than you think, and if you succeed, you’ll no longer be able to promote your software or your research articles through your FB page to your network; you’ll no longer have any idea what my ten brothers and sisters are saying about you; you won’t receive “hi cutie-pie” notes from me anymore; and most important you’ll have no way to keep track of what my friendship with Alex looks like on Facebook. Are you really going to give all that up?”

Stu: (pause) “OK, I’m going to think about it first, then delete my page. (thinking) OK, OK you have a point. But I’m making a choice to stay. And so I need to be prepared to accept whatever the Mark has in store for me.”

Me: “Ah, yes. Facebook: the opiate of the masses.”

Stu: “You’re one of those masses. When you write up your thoughts from this conversation on your blog and post the link to Facebook, won’t you be glad it goes viral precisely because of the architecture they’ve created? It’s like you’re saying that Facebook should never innovate.”

Me: “No, I’m saying that companies should innovate in a way that lets consumers opt in to the new features. What they should not do is significantly change the architecture unbidden, and along with it the meaning of people’s previous speech acts online. For example, FB could have announced the You and X feature, and made it possible to activate it for certain friends and not others, or made it possible to change the settings so I could see my relationships with certain friends (and they would have to agree) but others could only see those relationships if both I and my friend want them to.”

Stu: “But look at it from the point of view of Zuckerberg. He needs to make money somehow. He makes money by innovating.”

Me: “But he makes money with ads, and by selling those silly little FB credits in Walmart. And you don’t have to be evil to make money. Even Google thinks Facebook is hypocritical. Google, Stu. Do you remember when that GoogleZon video first came out on YouTube? You were the first person to be scared of the idea that one company would dominate digital information on the web. And now Facebook is trying to turn itself into the new web, only with a very different architecture deliberately sculpted to mold society in line with one man’s vision, a vision that over-writes centuries of Enlightenment norms.”

Stu: “But his vision isn’t about information domination. It’s about a new kind of transparency. It is a belief that everyone gets to have their fifteen minutes of fame and the fifteen people who think they are the bees knees. MarkZists think you can have this everyday and that their innovations make it happen more often for more people than ever before. It’s about letting people create and use data in nifty ways we cannot predict. As far as the history of capitalism goes, they are the fastest growing company ever. Those are marketplace votes; validation of a vision.”

Kid Number Two: “Can you guys stop arguing?”

Me: “Oh, we’re not arguing; we’re just having a spirited and very reasonable discussion.”

Kid Number One: “Whatever. What are we having for dinner?”

Stu: “More to the point, what are we having for dinner when this Rob guy comes to visit?”

Me: “Um, I think he’s a fan of potions.”
_____________________________________________

EPILOGUE: Kid Number Two: (later, at dinner) “So. What were you two arguing about anyway?”

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

Web 2.0 and the IR Profession

Dan Drezner and I have a new essay in International Studies Perspectives on the ways in which user-generated technologies are impacting the discipline of IR. Here’s the abstract:

The International Relations (IR) profession has not fully taken stock of the way in which user-driven information technologies—including Blogger, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia—are reshaping our professional activities, our subject matter, and even the constitutive rules of the discipline itself. In this study, we reflect on the ways in which our own roles and identities as IR scholars have evolved since the advent of “Web 2.0”: the second revolution in communications technology that redefined the relationship between producers and consumers of online information. We focus on two types of new media particularly relevant to the practice and the profession of IR: blogs and social networking sites.

Of course if scholarly journal lag-time weren’t what it is we had written this more recently than thirteen months ago, we’d probably have also talked about the data generation possibilities of tools like Wikileaks… more on that here.

Wikileaks and “War Crimes”


Last Monday, Julian Assange told reporters in London that the Afghan War Diaries reveal war crimes in Afghanistan, and reiterated this statement on Democracy Now! midweek. The claim has been widely reported and is being reported as fact by some sources. This installment in my series on the Wikileaks story will evaluate this claim and correct a few conceptual inaccuracies circulating in the press coverage.

But first, here’s what this post is not arguing. I am not arguing that no evidence of war crimes exists in the war logs. Actually, it would surprise me if there are not some genuine international humanitarian law violations evidenced in those documents, as some occur in every war, and many are already well known to have occurred in this war. Any new allegations should be investigated immediately by the responsible governments (if indeed they have not done so already).

That said, several of the examples Assange has given in his interviews so far or that have been reported in the press are not actually war crimes, and those that may be have long been known to those following the war.

This brings me to three important points about whether Assange’s “revelations” of “war crimes” can justify the potential risks to which he exposed others in “blowing the whistle.”

1) The Term “War Crimes” Refers to The Means By Which War is Waged, Not the Question of Whether War Itself Is Legal or Ethical. The laws of war are divided into two categories. The first is the law on the use of force governing whether specific wars are justified (grounded in the UN Charter regime). The second, which includes the law of armed conflict (Hague Conventions) /international humanitarian law (Geneva Conventions), governing how war may be conducted whether or not it’s justified, as well as the treatment of non-combatants. The concept of “war crimes” refers to grave violations only of the second set of treaties; a widely accepted list of war crimes appears in the Article 8 of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court.

Assange’s main point seems to be that war itself is hell, rather than that soldiers have sometimes behaved in hellish ways:

This material shines light on the everyday brutality and squalor of war. The archive will change public opinion and it will change the opinion of people in positions of political and diplomatic influence.

Well, war is hell. (Though, sometimes, so too is peace.) But the fact that interstate war brings with it “squalor and carnage” doesn’t necessarily imply war crimes. For that we need to look at how soldiers are conducting themselves in a given war, and we need a basic familiarity with relevant treaty law.

2) Not Everything Bad That Happens in War Is A War Crime. Here are some things Assange is talking about that are definitely not war crimes.

Accidentally Killing Civilians. The US does an awful lot of this, and I’ve argued before that that policy is ethically bankrupt. But it’s not a war crime, as the Geneva Conventions drafters accepted that unintentional deaths may occur in wars. Killing civilians on purpose is a crime, but the US does not have a policy of intentionally murdering civilians. Quite the contrary. Although there have been cases where US individual soldiers committed war crimes, official US policy has in fact been, in recent decades, to incur ever greater risks in order to avoid hitting civilians. The best of intentions don’t mean civilian casualties will ever be zero in a conflict zone. But Assange’s claim that civilian casualties have been tragically high doesn’t equate to evidence of war crimes – at least not necessarily.

Starting a War in Which Your Enemy Then Purposely Kills Civilians. The Taliban does appear to have a policy of intentionally murdering civilians. In fact, many of the “war crimes” described in the Afghan War Diaries – such as IED attacks on civilians – are actually Taliban crimes. It’s disingenuous for Assange to claim that the US war itself is responsible for these actions just because we started the war, since the Taliban were also intentionally slaughtering well before the 2001 air war.

Failing to Keep Accurate Track of the Number of Accidental Civilian Dead. The reports definitely demonstrate this pattern to an enlightening degree: when US troops hit civilians accidentally, the field reports often gloss over evidence of the body counts. I think this is terrible practice, but to my knowledge this isn’t a violation of war law, because (to my knowledge) governments are not actually required to record and disclose civilian casualties. If I’m wrong on this one someone point me to the relevant provision in treaty law; I haven’t researched it closely, though Stephanie Carvin has, drawing the same conclusion.

3) Revelations of Things We Already Knew Aren’t Revelations.A number of practices in Afghanistan evidenced in this report are in fact argued by some including myself to be war law violations. But these practices had already been long documented and condemned prior to the Afghan War Diaries.

Assassination of Alleged “High-Value Targets”. The documents “reveal” that ground troops are engaged in missions to kill specific terror suspects, which in some cases (though not all) are arguably war law violations. (I say arguably because while I would have argued that suspected militants should not be considered legitimate targets unless engaged in hostilities, the Obama Administration and some legal experts whom I respect disagree with me.) At any rate, this debate over “targeted killings” is an old one. How are the actions of Task Force 373 any different from those of drone pilots assasinating suspected militants (and their families) from the air? In both cases, US troops hunt suspected insurgents by stealth instead of engaging them in the open, and take them out often along with a multitude of innocents. In either case, the central war law issue is the same: is it right for our armed forces to kill people, even bad people, who are not at that time engaged in hostilities (that is, is any civilian area where a suspected militant might be at the moment a legitimate military target?) (I say no; the Obama Administration has argued yes.) If the public wasn’t already incensed enough about this to force policy changes, I’m not sure how this new evidence of the same practice engaged in by ground troops is going to tip the balance.

Unacceptably High Levels of Collateral Damage. Well yeah. Many of us have been saying this for years. The Administration hasn’t listened, and aside from the fact that researchers like me can now calculate exactly how unacceptably high they are (more on that soon) and maybe capture variation in the unacceptability barometer for various rules of engagement to conduct a precision human security analysis, there’s no there there.

A Polish My Lai? One story Assange describes on Democracy Now! is an alleged massacre of civilians by Polish ISAF troops, and this is the sort of thing that indeed qualifies as a war crime. But this too was already reported at the time. And unlike My Lai, there was no need to “blow the whistle” on this one, because it was never denied or covered up: the Polish government has already exhibited due diligence by investigating and trying those responsible. According to the Warsaw Business Journal:

A Polish investigation linked seven members of the Polish military with the attacks. A trial to determine their guilt began in February 2009 and is ongoing. The defendants face prison sentences of between 12 years and life for the killing of civilians and/or firing on an unarmed target. It is unclear whether the Wikileaks documents will have any affect on the court proceedings.

If so, Assange may have undermined due process in a criminal proceeding – one of many potential knock-on effects of his disclosures whose true extent may never be known. He has also apparently broken Polish law. The same article asserts:

Another revelation contained in the incident reports is the name and rank of the Polish counter-intelligence officer involved in the investigation of Nangar Khel. The publication of this information is a crime in Poland, carrying a sentence of five to eight years in prison. It is also a crime in the United States, as evidenced by the Valerie Plame investigation of 2003.

One Final Thought. Though I remain highly critical of Assange for dumping sensitive data online indiscriminately, I feel compelled to emphasize that I am not an opponent of whistle-blowing per se. In fact, I strongly support whistle-blowing specific cases of actual war crimes – like an actual “My Lai” where the responsible government is covering up the incident rather than prosecuting the offending troops – in a way that calls attention to perpetrators and their bystander governments while protecting the identities of vulnerable populations. (Which is not, however, what Assange has actually done here.) More on all that in a future essay.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Current Intelligence]

The Problem With Online Petitions

At LGM, I recently suggested that readers support a Department of Justice Rule-making process on prison reform. I probably should have added that it’s not enough – not nearly enough – to simply log into the Change.org site and click “send” on the form letter they offer.

That’s because DoJ doesn’t care how many individual constituents support or oppose prison reform per se. They couldn’t care less, in fact. All they care about is how to create the best possible set of rules, so what they want most are informed, carefully thought out, unique comments.

Congress cares about numbers, of course. Congress’s job is to pass laws, and because we elect our congressional leaders they care a great deal about the popularity of those laws.

Federal agencies are pretty much the reverse. They are tasked with implementing laws, and they are staffed by civil servants. Their job is not to get re-elected, it is to figure out how to produce collective goods.

Citizen input in federal rule-makings is not about the popularity of a particular rule. Rather, it’s about more heads being better than few – it’s about tapping the experiential, procedural, scientific and everyday expertise of the American people. The federal rule-making process is one of the truly deliberative mechanisms in our country. What the public comment process is supposed to produce is useful substantive citizen input on what the rule should look like.

What does this have to do with online petitions?

Well, because federal agencies don’t care about quantity of comments, only quality, a form letter written by Change.org and submitted by you and 500,000 others is worth exactly one comment no matter how many times it’s sent – precisely the opposite of Congress.

You can probably see the grand irony here. The genius of websites like Change.org is that they make sending a letter to your government easy, thereby potentially increasing the level of citizen participation. But because clicking a form letter is so easy, citizens have powerful disincentives to write substantive comments where such form letters are available, even in cases – federal rule-makings – where such a comment would actually be read and considered valuable. For example, researchers studying the 2004 EPA mercruy rule-making found that the vast majority of comments submitted to the EPA through were are either identical form letters or contained extremely minor modifications.

Not only is this a waste of citizen time and effort, but this influx of meaningless form letters actually makes it harder for federal civil servants to identify the few useful comments sent in by citizens to their government that could actually aid their decision-making about a particular rule.

So, here’s the moral of the story: Anytime you go to signal your opinion on an online petition, first figure out if it’s going to Congress or to a federal agency. If it’s Congress, sheer numbers count and substance is discounted – so save yourself time and simply click yes or no. But if it’s a federal agency – EPA, DoJ, DoT, FCC – be sure to alter the letter as much as possible, and write an informed, substantive comment. For example, if you support prison reform, write about what prison reform rules should look like and why, or ways in which DoJ can actually improve on the NPREC recommendations, and encourage others to do the same.

The same is true for many, many other issues about which progressives care deeply. Biomass for Fuel. Polar Bears. Net neutrality.

Sure, use the above websites to formulate your opinion. Use their online form to submit it. But delete the form letter and put it in your own words. (And not just any words. No emotional rants. No insults in all caps. No accusations of immoral behavior. No threats. It’s not that public officials care about these things; it’s that they couldn’t care less and letters like that just make it harder for them to find the useful, substantive comments that they need to make the best rules.)

Citizens unwilling or unable to take the time to write their own substantive letters can far better serve our democracy if they engage the Congressional process where it’s the absolute numbers of voters taking a certain position that matters, rather than gumming up the rule-making process with duplicative comments. And organizations aiming to increase citizen input to government should be thinking harder about to improve the quality of that participation, not just the quantity.

[cross-posted at LGM]

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